The System that Wasn’t There: Ayn Rand’s Failed Philosophy (and why it matters) -Nicholas McGinnis

2014-03-18T16:45:43+00:00 August 25th, 2012|Philosophy of Ethics|

fig. 1. Miss Ayn Rand.


“I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.”

That’s Paul Ryan, Republican vice-presidential candidate, in a 2005 speech delivered at The Atlas Society–one of many lavishly funded organizations devoted to spreading the thought and philosophy of Ayn Rand (he’s since distanced himself).

There are so many of these organizations it is hard to keep track. Apart from the Atlas Society, there is the Ayn Rand Institute, the Nathaniel Branden Institute, the Anthem Foundation and the Institute for Objectivist Studies. Numerous libertarian think-tanks, like the Cato Institute, promote Rand. Campus groups–which receive funding from objectivist foundations–are everywhere, promoting Rand via slick newsletters (like The Undercurrent: “Obama wants to use Blakely’s earnings to cover the bill for thousands of less productive citizens’ flu shots and groceries,” a typical line reads–Blakely is the noble, visionary entrepreneur who created Spanx.)

fig. 2. To hell with your ‘flu shots,’ parasites.

The fantastically rich find in Rand’s celebration of individual achievement a kindred spirit, and support her work with pecuniary enthusiasm: in 1999, McGill University turned down a million-dollar endowment from wealthy businessman Gilles Tremblay, who had given the money in the hopes of creating a chair dedicated to the the study of her work. Then-president Bernard Shapiro commented that “we can’t just sell our souls just for the sake of being richer,” hopefully aware of the irony: what else is there but getting richer? Rand literally ends her most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, with the dollar sign replacing the sign of the cross, traced in the air–indicating the dawn of a new, bold, daringly sophomoric era.

Rand’s books have sold in the millions, never quite losing steam in the half-century since publication. A now-infamous Library of Congress survey placed Atlas Shrugged as the second-most influential book in America, trailing only the Bible–a dubious pairing, perhaps, given Rand’s militant atheism, but one that indeed captures the uneasy tension of contemporary America: the celebrated Protestant ethic versus the spirit of capitalism.

Despite her popular appeal, perennially best-selling books, and the breathless testimonial of politicians, actors and businessmen–Ryan is scarcely alone in his praise–professional academics almost universally disdain Rand. An online poll by widely-read philosophy professor and blogger Brian Leiter had Ayn Rand elected the one thinker who “brings the most disrepute on to our discipline by being associated with it,” by a landslide. She is almost never taught in classrooms. Her name elicits jeers and funny, exasperated tales of fierce, bright undergraduates under her spell arguing her case for hours on end.

This near-unanimous rejection has led to some remarkably uncharitable, and bizarre, attempts to explain away the lack of academic interest: in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Rand, its authors write that “her advocacy of a minimal state with the sole function of protecting negative individual rights is contrary to the welfare statism of most academics,” claiming outright that the overwhelming majority of professional philosophers and political theorists have been simply unable to fairly evaluate her work because of the biasing factor of their prior political commitments.

Somehow the same ‘welfare statism’ of academics has not prevented the close study of Robert Nozick’s landmark Anarchy, State and Utopia, a sophisticated libertarian text that mounts an original, and far more effective, argument against redistributive policies. Apart from John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, there is perhaps no more commonly-assigned book in undergraduate political philosophy classes.

Surely there must be some other reason for Rand’s academic neglect. The authors of the SEP entry do go on to suggest an additional number of largely psychological hypotheses having to do with Rand’s dogmatic tone, cult-like following, and emphasis on popular fiction–never entertaining the possibility that professional philosophers think her work is, quite simply, of poor quality. Objectively, ahem, speaking.


fig. 3. Immanuel Kant: “the preeminent good which we call moral … is only possible in a rational being.” Oops.

What is Rand’s ‘philosophy’, then? Her own summary may be appropriated:

I am primarily the creator of a new code of morality which has so far been believed impossible, namely a morality not based on faith, not on arbitrary whim, not on emotion, not on arbitrary edict, mystical or social, but on reason; a morality that can be proved by means of logic which can be demonstrated to be true and necessary.

Now may I define what my morality is? Since man’s mind is his basic means of survival […] he has to hold reason as an absolute, by which I mean that he has to hold reason as his only guide to action, and that he must live by the independent judgment of his own mind; that his highest moral purpose is the achievement of his own happiness […] that each man must live as an end in himself, and follow his own rational self-interest.

The practical, political conclusions to be drawn from this ‘morality’ are surprisingly specific: a minimal government, for instance, which enforces no minimum wage law, operates no schools, collects no taxes, and merely enforces contracts in an economy that is otherwise entirely laissez-faire. Rational individuals do not come together to create a universal health insurance system in the process of seeking ‘happiness’. They do not pass laws restricting what age a child can work.

fig. 4. Rationality at work.

Unsurprisingly, the politicians and businessmen who admire Rand focus on such policy recommendations and are rather less familiar with, for instance, her grounds for rejecting the analytic-synthetic distinction. There’s a radical disconnect between the impact her political thought and the influence her metaphysics has had. Everybody who likes Rand can defend at great length a number of socio-economic theses; what very few do is discuss the metaphysical underpinnings that purportedly justify her political and social views.

This is unfortunate, because her philosophy attempts to form a coherent system, and these higher-order political views are the direct result of foundational assumptions in metaphysics and logic (and a series of complex derivations from these). This is one case where an opinion on the possibility of a priori knowledge could mean the difference between a school breakfast program and a hungry child.

Now there are two ways to approach Objectivism: first, and most commonly, we may tackle her edifying fiction, which portrays Manichean conflicts between heroic, intelligent ‘producers’ and parasitic ‘looters.’ The latter, mainly by force of numbers and all the vile raiments of democracy, get in the way of the former: they do not understand that they depend, utterly, on these rarefied ubermenschen, who, of course, ultimately triumph. Given the stark morality of the novels, everyone who reads them in a positive light cast themselves quite naturally as noble producers, and certainly not parasites, which, given Rand’s popularity, means we are a society absolutely replete with noble, heroic, rugged geniuses.

Well-meaning readers are taken in by her grandiose, if somewhat turgid, presentation of

man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute (Atlas Shrugged).

The values propounded in her work many find stirring and true. To contest Rand, to the true believer, is to besmirch rationality itself, to prize the unremarkable ‘collective’ over the individual, to shrug at excellence, and–from jealousy, or some other base instinct–to hate and undermine one’s betters and undeservedly demand what is theirs.

The other way in is via her ‘system’ of philosophy: resolutely materialistic, godless, and rationalistic. It proceeds largely from a set of basic axioms (‘existence’, ‘identity’, ‘consciousness’) and derives a more-or-less comprehensive set of metaphysical,  epistemological and ethical views. Here we have a complicated internal jargon (which resists assimilation into the analytic vernacular) and a set of post-Randian writers–Peikoff, Kelley, and others–who have fleshed out and expanded her thought into something like a philosophical system in the traditional sense, the kind of thing that has been largely abandoned in contemporary academic philosophy. One can get a sense of the ‘system’ from a glance at the wikipedia page: there are any number of dubious inferences made, most remarkably from ‘existence’ to ‘identity’ to something like conceptual necessity (and thence to causality itself, defined as the “principle of identity applied to action”–possibly the most cringe-worthy explanation of causality to ever be presented seriously: in effect, we are told that things do as they do because they are as they are.)

From axiomatic bases the edifice is built: existence exists and is characterized by identity, which is populated by conscious beings, who must use reason to survive as individuals, and the dictates of reason force us to admit that rational self-interest is the only metaphysically coherent way forward, logically implying capitalism and free markets.

To deny this is to deny that A is A.



“I think she’s [Rand] one of the greatest people of all time. Ultimately, in philosophy, she’s going to be one of the giants. I mean, she’ll be up there with Plato and Aristotle.”

That’s Dr. Yaron Brook, who holds a PhD in Finance from the University of Texas at Austin. This provocative quote is culled from a recent interview in which he asserted that we are headed for a new dark ages unless we heed Rand’s wisdom. If we do not, “the next renaissance will begin when her books are rediscovered after 1,000 years of darkness.”

Brook is the director of the Ayn Rand Institute, the largest Objectivist organization, with a budget in the millions and political links to the Tea Party movement.

fig 5. The enlightened Dr. Yaron Brooks: “I would like to see the United States turn Fallujah into dust, and tell the Iraqis: If you’re going to continue to support the insurgents you will not have homes, you will not have schools, you will not have mosques.”


The incredible conceit that Ayn Rand will figure in the history of philosophy as one of the greats–better than Kant (“corrupt”), Hegel (“nonsensical”) or Wittgenstein (“garbage”)–is not restricted to her contemporary followers: Rand, in the same 1957 interview with Mike Wallace linked above, described herself as the most creative thinker alive. (Corey Robin notes that “Arendt, Quine, Sartre, Camus, Lukács, Adorno, Murdoch, Heidegger, Beauvoir, Rawls, Anscombe and Popper were all at work” in 1957, and invites the reader to draw their own conclusions).

Rand’s extreme self-regard was mirrored in her friends and followers. Former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan–a member of Ayn Rand’s tightly-knit inner circle–only recently, and reluctantly, acknowledged that there may be ‘flaws’ in Rand’s ideology of self-interest. But in the 1960s, he was writing for objectivist newsletters, and praised Rand for decades afterwards: “talking to Rand was like starting a game of chess thinking I was good, and suddenly finding myself in checkmate,” he said. In a 1957 letter to the editor prompted by a dismissive review of Atlas Shrugged, he wrote

Atlas Shrugged’ is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.

One wonders at the type of celebration of ‘life’ that centers around satisfied joy at the perishing of so-called ‘parasites.’  A boldly totalitarian discourse of justified elimination, produced a scant dozen years after the end of the second world war. It is a tradition upheld by contemporary Randians: Brooks has called for unrestricted, murderous warfare in Iraq (see above); Leonard Peikoff, who originally founded the Ayn Rand Institute, calls for the “immediate end” of “terrorist states” such as Iran, not ruling out nuclear weapons, and this “regardless of the countless innocents caught in the line of fire.”

Admiration for Rand can be found in strange places. Actors from Brad Pitt to Farrah Fawcett have effused praise as well. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas allegedly makes his clerks watch the 1949 film version of The Fountainhead. But the definitive statements belongs to her lover and confidante Nathaniel Branden (indeed, Rand’s heir apparent until a fractious and unsavoury dispute over his termination of their affair). He recalls writing, in all seriousness, that

Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived. Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world. Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter of any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral or appropriate to man’s life on earth.

These were the initial premises presented in Branden’s lecture courses on objectivism, approved and overseen by Rand herself. From this point of view, it is indeed very fortunate for humanity that Rand did not choose to ‘go Galt’ and, like her most famous protagonist, withdraw her genius from us.



fig 6. Soldiers marching in Petrograd, 1917. Rand was twelve.

Meanwhile, a thriving cottage industry of journalists, essayists, cultural observers and philosophers seem engaged in a one-upmanship contest over who can deride her with the most vicious economy of words possible. George Monbiot says of Rand that her thought “has a fair claim to be the ugliest philosophy the postwar world has produced.” Corey Robin, with a historical flourish, writes that “St. Petersburg in revolt gave us Vladimir Nabokov, Isaiah Berlin and Ayn Rand. The first was a novelist, the second a philosopher. The third was neither but thought she was both.” The late Gore Vidal was scathing even decades ago, writing in 1961 that Rand

has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the “welfare” state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts […] Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic.

Criticism has not only come from the left. While Rand’s allure to conservatives is far more pronounced now–despite some lingering misgivings from religious groups–intellectuals on the right despaired of Rand’s growing influence when her books were first published. In the National Review, Whittaker Chambers wrote, in 1957:

Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible.

This was at a time when many conservative intellectuals saw in the complexity of the world a reason to be trepidant about radical change and wary about the potential for deleterious destabilization it brings, an altogether different form of ‘conservatism’ from that of the present-day marriage of libertarian economics with theological presumption. Chambers rightly saw in Rand a dangerous radical, one who glosses over complexity in her desire to derive political prescription from first principles, an anti-conservative writer par excellence advocating a radically different society:

[Atlas Shrugged] is essentially a political book. And here begins mischief. Systems of philosophic materialism, so long as they merely circle outside this world’s atmosphere, matter little to most of us. The trouble is that they keep coming down to earth. It is when a system of materialist ideas presumes to give positive answers to real problems of our real life that mischief starts. In an age like ours, in which a highly complex technological society is everywhere in a high state of instability, such answers, however philosophic, translate quickly into political realities. And in the degree to which problems of complexity and instability are most bewildering to masses of men, a temptation sets in to let some species of Big Brother solve and supervise them.

William F. Buckley, who helped define modern American conservatism by launching and serving as editor-in-chief of The National Review, specifically published Chambers’ critique (and others like it) to purge Rand from conservatism–writing that “her desiccated philosophy’s conclusive incompatibility with the conservative’s emphasis on transcendence, intellectual and moral” meant it was unworthy of the noble tradition of conservative politics, and to be cast out with the Birchers, anti-semites, and white supremacists.

The difference of opinion over the value of Rand’s work could not be more stark. One is hard-pressed to find a ‘moderate’ who finds in Rand some modest value or would characterize her as a decent, or simply good, thinker. She is either genius or a fraud; either a first-rate, world-historical intellectual or a hack writer who appeals to the worst in people by pointing to their wounded self-worth and telling them they are great (“To say “I love you” one must first be able to say the “I” ”, she wrote in The Fountainhead, sounding more like Dr. Phil and less like the heir to Aristotle).

This polarizing effect is remarkable. It is partially a function of the reach of her work: far worse things have been expressed than those ideas contained in Rand’s novels, but almost none have had the impact (ten million grenades handed out on street-corners do more damage than an atom bomb left sitting on a shelf). But the virulence is also a reaction to the breathless fanaticism of her converts, hyperbole matched to hyperbole, in the full knowledge that derision is often more effective than argument in inoculating the undecided.

fig. 7. Greatest. Human. Ever.

It is true that Rand’s opponents in popular media often focus on her personal life–her exile from Russia, her ‘rational’ and tawdry affair with Branden, her Hollywood roots, her censorious soirees (hilariously parodied in Rothbard’s one-act ‘playMozart was a Red)–and only mention her ethics and philosophy to disparage the conclusions reached. It appears self-evident that all this talk of ‘existence exists’ as applied to public policy is nonsense, so it suffices to trot out the absurdities of ‘ethical egoism’ and the case is settled.

Rand’s proponents, particularly those of an intellectual bent, find in such ‘evasions’ a confirmation that they hold a rationally acquired set of truths: otherwise, critics of Rand would be able to take on the system, rather than engage in ad hominem or demonstrate emotionally-clouded dislike of her inescapable conclusions (proof positive of their own unreason). Even those who have only felt from the novels an intuitive, undeniable pull know that beneath the pulp of Roark, Taggart and Galt lies a profound set of philosophical doctrines that the high priests can always ably defend and no critic dares touch.


fig. 8. Robert Nozick–Another great, though lesser, human.


One of the few academic philosophers to take Rand seriously enough to bother with a critique was our erstwhile libertarian friend Robert Nozick. His short article On the Randian Argument proposes to examine the alleged ‘moral foundations of capitalism’ provided by her system. Almost immediately it devolves in dialectical castigation, with Nozick taking Rand to task for lacking clarity, for failing to adequately support her premises, for drawing unsupported conclusions, and for baldly stating controversial theses as if they were self-evident facts. From the very first, he writes that “I would most like to set out the argument as a deductive argument and then examine the premises. Unfortunately, it is not clear (to me) exactly what the argument is.” His reconstruction is a marvel of patience and charity–combined with lacerating criticism. He sums up the argument:

(1) Only living beings have values with a point.

(2) Therefore, life itself is a value to a living being which has it.

(3) Therefore, life, as a rational person, is a value to the person whose life it is.

(4) Therefore, “some principle about interpersonal behaviour and rights and purposes.”

The argument is, at some length, considered and demolished. Two quick examples suffice (the interested reader may consult the piece).

Upon examining the premise that ‘life’ is a necessary precondition for the existence of value and is, therefore, a value itself (2), Nozick dryly comments that

one cannot reach the conclusion that life itself  is a value merely by conjoining together many sentences containing the world ‘value’ and ‘life’ or ‘alive’ and hoping that, by some process of association and mixture, this new connection will arise.

The problem is that Rand, Nozick says, does not consider other value-forming concepts during the course of her transcendental argument and has no means to rule them out:

Cannot content be given to should-statements by … any one of a vast number of other dimensions or possible goals? … it is puzzling why it is claimed that only against a background in which life is (assumed to be) a value, can should-statements be given a sense. It might, of course, be argued, that only against this background can should-statements be given their correct sense, but we have seen no argument for this claim.

Puzzling indeed: certainly alternatives are possible. And it is not that these alternatives do not ‘value life’ themselves–of course they do, derivatively. Rand’s claim is that valuing life must be foundational, but, apart from some intuitive appeal, we are never told why that should be.

More troublesome yet is the leap from premises (1-3) to the vague principles of (4), which Nozick claims involves a number of dubious assumptions–not the least of which is a principle requiring there be no “objective conflicts of interests between persons”, ever. Surely this is too strong: even the Gods are known to quarrel.

fig 8. On the set of MTV’s The Real Olympus.

In a footnote, Nozick concludes that Rand’s attraction lay primarily in “the way it handles particular cases, the kind of considerations it brings to bear, its ‘sense of life’.” He continues:

For many, the first time they encounter a libertarian view saying that a rational life (with individual rights) is possible and justified is in the writings of Miss Rand, and their finding such a view attractive, right, etc., can easily lead them to think that the particular argume

nts Miss Rand offers for the view are conclusive are adequate.

This is likely correct. Nozick, a libertarian political philosopher himself, is sympathetic to the some of the conclusions Rand draws, but finds himself unable to endorse the arguments presented. The ‘moral’ case for capitalism flounders in a morass of unjustified assumptions and leaps of inference, glossed over by a tone of material certainty. It seems plausible only to the extent that we appreciate her peculiar moral sensibility.

Her ‘metaphysics’ fare no better. This is all the more damning, since her value theory is meant to follow directly from her basic, indubitable axioms: identity, existence, and consciousness.

The abuses of ‘identity’ (“A is A”) have been singled out for particular criticism. Sidney Hook, writing in 1961, notes that:

The extraordinary virtues Miss Rand finds in the law that A is A suggests that she is unaware that logical principles by themselves can test only consistency. They cannot establish truth […] Swearing fidelity to Aristotle, Miss Rand claims to deduce not only matters of fact from logic but, with as little warrant, ethical rules and economic truths as well. As she understands them, the laws of logic license her in proclaiming that “existence exists,” which is very much like saying that the law of gravitation is heavy and the formula of sugar sweet.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that logical principles are devoid of genuine empirical content. One cannot derive particular facts from ‘A is A’ any more than one could conjure a slice of pizza from the Pythagorean theorem. Tautologies are meant to be vacuous. (Certainly, at least, public education is not a logical contradiction the same way a married bachelor, or a four-sided triangle, is.)

Logical technicalities aside, it is worth noting that the most important philosopher in the West since Aristotle has no mathematical or logical philosophy to speak of. Rand was writing in the immediate aftermath of the most fertile period of logical and mathematical development in human history. Her emphasis on ‘logic’ and the indubitable inevitability of her conclusions is made in the shadow of Frege, the set-theoretic paradoxes, and the Principia; of the debate over intuitionism, of the incompleteness proof and of the results of Tarsky, Church, Alonzo; and just at the dawn of paraconsistent logic (which rejects, inter alia, that it is always true that A is A).

fig. 9. Sorry, you look just like this other guy I know, “Schmidt.” Funny.


Indeed the crisis in the foundations of mathematics, the work of Tarski on truth, the rejection of the law of excluded middle by Brouwer and his followers, Gödel’s proofs–the list could be multiplied–had no effect on her, if she was even aware of any of it. The Atlas Society’s guide to objectivism candidly admits this lacuna, in its entry on the topic of the philosophy of mathematics:

Ayn Rand’s identification of the nature of universals and her analysis of the process of abstraction have much to contribute to the philosophy of mathematics. There is, however, no Objectivist literature on this topic.

Still, the reader will be glad to hear that the problem of universals has been solved, along with the processes that underpin conceptual abstraction. For a philosopher who prized logic, she remained utterly ignorant of it until her death, and some of her most ardent followers are determined to remain so themselves: Peikoff disparages all non-Aristotelian logic as “inherently dishonest […] an explicit rebellion against reason and reality (and, therefore, against man and values).”

Nozick, again, is perfectly clear on the logical issue: Rand is wrong. But it is not only that Rand uses strictly logical principles to derive ethical and political conclusions, which simply cannot happen, but the means by which she goes about the deduction–should we be so indulgent to permit it—is itself a strange wealth of confusion and error:

The followers of Rand, for example, treat “A is A” not just as “everything is identical to itself” but as a kind of statement about essences and the limits of things. “A is A, and it can’t be anything else, and once it’s A today, it can’t change its spots tomorrow.” Now, that doesn’t follow. I mean, from the law of identity, nothing follows about limitations on change. The weather is identical to itself but it’s changing all the time. The use that’s made by people in the Randian tradition of this principle of logic that everything is identical to itself to place limits on what the future behavior of things can be, or on the future nature of current things, is completely unjustified so far as I can see; it’s illegitimate.

These ‘illegitimate uses’ are nothing short of extraordinary: John Galt, in Atlas Shrugged–Rand’s own mouthpiece, delivering the radio address than encapsulates her philosophical system–claims that

The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A—and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival.

Nozick is exactly right in claiming that Rand leverages the ‘principle of identity’ to all kinds of strange metaphysical purposes, including very contentious–if not outright false–conclusions about essentialism. In Galt’s speech we see “A is A” turned into a statement about the essential ‘nature’ of humankind that carries with it the full logical weight of the putative axiom.

Obviously this doesn’t work: suppose we accept that “A is A” (in particular we are not dialetheists; there is certainly no physical theory which introduces terms that violate identity or non-contradiction, and we know this a priori). This implies nothing about man’s nature. Not even that man has a nature at all. Or that it is fixed. That it cannot be changed, or consciously altered.

Even if man has a ‘nature’ in Rand’s sense, our rational aspects are of a piece with our creative capacities, our imaginative selves, our empathetic abilities, our emotional landscape, our sexual drives: to the extent that Rand’s analysis of human nature as rational is meant to be descriptive of what we actually are, it is surely false.

This is arguably not what she means. We have instead a logically-deduced (yet normative) claim about, say, the rational, conscious apprehension of independent reality being central to ‘man’ and his survival–the only value. (Though, obviously, we don’t in fact survive on reason alone. We couldn’t.) This conclusion, obviously, does not follow, or can be justified by, the principle of identity, nor does it seem a particularly good way of going about determining how to structure human civilization.

This last point is perhaps the most crucial: apart from the details of her argument, and the arcane mysteries that her defenders beckon us enter (to learn about ‘measurement omission’ and the “law of identity applied to action” and other putative solutions to open problems), the most fundamental problem is the methodological assumption that reflection on ‘self-evident’ axioms can generate a host of inescapable moral, political, and economic truths.


Here, then, is a methodological digression, to provide a contrast.

My own politics are generally informed by the desire to live in a ‘good’ society. I’m pretty casual about what ‘good’ means, precisely: some kind of pluralist satisficing compromise borne of reflective equilibrium. Most of us want a society that is free, genuinely meritocratic, absent egregious social strife and inequality (for basic Rawlsian reasons), with just laws and a representative government and opportunities to develop one’s talents and interests without too much interference.

I like to make arguments based on comparative case studies, analysis of available data, incorporation of sundry pragmatic and practical considerations, various heuristic devices (that are admittedly fallible but reliable), with an eye both the desirability outcomes and the caveat that ends don’t always justify means. It’s not particularly elegant, but it’s reasonable and it works. I make no claim to perfect consistency, have no self-contained system, and pretend to no ultimate, objective answers.

Now contrast this with an axiomatic, a priori approach: where one begins with self-evident truths (or ‘first principles’) and then derives conclusions based on analysis of these: we might take private property as a fundamental concept, for instance, and conclude that we have no duties to the poor. In this we proceed as Hobbes did in his Leviathan, Spinoza in the Ethics, or as Rand does with her “three axioms.” As we saw above, from the assertion of indubitable truths (“existence exists” and so on) we conclude, at the end of a long derivation, that essentially the sole purpose of government is the defense of negative individual rights.

fig. 10. “A is A”; therefore, you must sleep with me. (Yes, Rand basically said this.)


What is difficult to understand is why we should believe that reasoning from so-called ‘first principles’ can tell us anything at all about how to build and maintain something as complex and messy as a human society, with complex social, economic, political arrangements presided over by only partially rational creatures prone to outbursts of passion, crises of confidence, and known, predictable irrationalities.

Axiomatics are useful–more than useful–in many domains. Like in set theory, formal logic and mathematics. But the situation is subtle and messy even in these. A representative example: must we accept the axiom of choice? There are dozens of variations on the formal set-theoretic axioms: mathematicians often use the ZFC axioms, but many don’t.

Another simple example. For the better part of 2,000 years rejection of the Euclidean Parallel Postulate was deemed impossible–until the discovery of non-Euclidean geometries demolished its apodictic standing. If the situation is so difficult even at the level of mathematics and geometry, the standard-bearers of objective purity in human knowledge, what hope is there of deriving monetary policy from ‘A is A’–assuming such a project is even coherent?

In the hard sciences, contemporary physical scientists certainly don’t rely solely on axiomatics. Sure, some theoretical physicists proceed at an extreme level of mathematical abstraction; a certain measure of empirical input is nonetheless required (various physical constants, for example). From chemistry on up it’s perfectly obvious that axiomatics simply don’t work. And we know this for a fact: while quantum mechanics in principle allows us to calculate the properties of chemical systems without having to perform any lab experiments (via the Schrödinger equation) in practice the calculations are far too complex to solve except for the very simplest systems.

This is chemistry–again, a hard science. And then what? Upwards, to biology? Then psychology? Then sociology and political science? Economics? Rand is to make us believe that the axiomatic method can tell us profound truths about the incredibly more complicated, higher-order, non-linear complex systems involved in running a planet? From logic alone?

Note that the prima facie plausibility of any putative axioms has nothing to do with this criticism, which is that the deductive mode of reasoning is completely inapplicable to the topics considered. I don’t even need to examine whether ‘existence exists.’ There is no way Rand’s method is knowledge-producing.


fig. 11. Alan Greenspan–“Turns out selfishness actually destroys society. Who could’ve guessed?”

Alan Greenspan testified before a senate committee in the aftermath of the financial crisis, in October of 2008. He admitted that

I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms […] Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.

Pressed by committee chair Henry Waxman, who asked pointedly “do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?” Greenspan answered: “Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.”

For many on the left, the sub-prime meltdown, financial crisis, and ongoing recession are proof positive that the laissez-faire, deregulatory approach is dead in the water. Rand’s followers have drawn the opposite conclusion: the crisis is the result of too much interference and the failure of governments to fully implement the measures they propose. Going half-way, the argue, simply will not work.

In this they may be right. In a landmark 1956 paper, The General Theory of Second Best, economists R. G. Lipsey and Kelvin Lancaster demonstrate a profound and surprising result: that market failures–that is, failure to achieve some specified optimality condition–may require de-optimization of other parameters. In other words, the “second-best” solution, when the best cannot be achieved, is not necessarily the next most similar to the best solution. The authors prove that it

is not true that a situation in which more, but not all, of the optimum conditions are fulfilled is necessarily, or is even likely to be, superior to a situation in which fewer are fulfilled […] if one of the Paretian optimum conditions cannot be fulfilled a second best optimum situation is achieved only by departing from all other optimum conditions.

Under one intuitive, and ultimately misleading, line of thought, any progress made towards an ‘ideal’ situation is, ipso facto, an improvement. Call this ‘ideal-state incrementalism’ (ISI). Suppose that it were true–per impossible–that Rand’s vision of a society of purely rational egoists, engaged in voluntary cooperation without any state interference would in fact be the best possible arrangement. Under the assumption of ISI, any society that more closely resembles the Randian ideal is better off than one which departs from it in more significant ways. But the theory of ‘second-best’ tells us that ISI is not always true: given some departure some ‘ideal’ conditions in one aspect, it does not follow that the best option is the one where all the other conditions are ideal.(In fact, the authors stress that we cannot know a priori what to do: a detailed, contextual analysis is required.)

Imagine the following toy model with three parameters: rationality, regulation, and redistribution. When the parameters are set to maximize rationality and minimize regulation and redistribution, the model achieves its optimal state–imagine, perhaps, these parameters can be set from 0 to 5, so that the ideal, optimal state is when we have the parameters at <5, 0, 0>.

Suppose humans are not always rational (or that information is imperfect, or any other of dozen plausible ways to deviate from the ideal case), so that the parameter value of human rationality is, inescapably, a mere , but we are free to set the parameters for regulation and redistribution. It is not the case that <3, 0, 0> is the next best solution. It might be <3, 2, 4>. Or something else entirely. The ideal-state incremental assumption supposes that outcome correlates in a linear fashion to proximity to the ideal state. But this is often false.

My presentation glosses over a number of more technical points. For present purposes we can ignore these and focus on the moral of the story: if the benefits of a Randian society are only tangible when certain onerous optimization conditions are met, then the value in pursuing such a society is proportional to the feasibility of its actual construction. And what are, honestly, the chances of this wondrous rational society? Slim, I suggest, to none. Now multiply this probability by the chance that Rand is right in the first place.

The methodological problem returns in an indirect fashion: if we cannot count on the description of some logical ‘ideal’ state to guide our policy choices–if it is not the case, in other words, that the correct thing to do is always to become more like Rand’s ideal, even assuming Rand’s ideals are correct–then we must proceed in some other way. I’ve outlined one such method above: messy, trial-and-error empirical work, principled yet fumbling, rigorous yet humble, necessarily imperfect and always adapting to contingency as it comes.

The Randian may object to all this that we presume outcome is somehow key to evaluating their position. This, they may protest, assumes a roughly utilitarian view, which they are keen to reject. The point of the Randian ideal is not that her views will prove to be of benefit to all once implemented, but that they are the only coherent moral views that are at all possible.

fig. 12. We’re hungry, but at least the system is moral.


This is certainly a tactic many objectivists could adopt, if they are comfortable with abandoning the claim that the most moral society is also the most beneficial society, a view that has some currency in orthodox circles (most prominently in Leonard Peikoff’s interpretation of Rand). In any event, the objection presupposes that no amount of general welfare could possibly make up for even the slightest violation of Randian negative rights (as Rand writes in The Virtue of Selfishness, “there can be no compromise on moral principles”).

Yet surely, at some point, most of us would say that, even if a given right was perfectly genuine, there are cases when it can be violated. One man’s ‘right’ to hold a patent on a medicine sometimes yields to the suffering of millions.

The man will get over it. Things are complicated.


fig. 13. How To Win Friends and Influence People, c. 350 BCE

Rejection of the Randian weltanschauung is not tantamount to rejecting all the values espoused within it. Much can be said to commend individualism against conformity, and the virtues of entrepreneurship and self-reliance. But commitment to these values does not logically imply the minimalist state advocated by Rand (let alone opposition to, say, minimum wage laws). They merely add to our existing stock of values to reflect on and take into consideration when deliberating.

Rand should have taken more of a cue from Aristotle, who warned, in the second book of the Nicomachean Ethics, that virtues need to be balanced, for excess and deficiency destroy their virtuous nature:

Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate.

Aristotle’s first example, appropriately enough, concerns money:

With regard to giving and taking of money the mean is liberality, the excess and the defect prodigality and meanness. In these actions people exceed and fall short in contrary ways; the prodigal exceeds in spending and falls short in taking, while the mean man exceeds in taking and falls short in spending.

For Aristotle, virtue required a careful weighing–borne of experience–that was able to discern when a virtue became a destructive vice from either a lack or a surfeit. An excess of courage results in rashness. A lack of liberality, meanness. And so on. We can–and should–consider some of virtues Rand holds up as genuine virtues, that is, virtues with a mean, that Rand’s implacable and stark philosophy has distorted beyond recognition. For, in Rand’s view, there is no mean, no discernment, no compromise, no weighing, no evaluation, no gray area:

Morality is a code of black and white. When and if men attempt a compromise, it is obvious which side will necessarily lose and which will necessarily profit […] The cult of moral grayness is a revolt against moral values (The Virtue of Selfishness).

Nothing could be further from Aristotle, not because the doctrine of virtue ethics revels in moral ambiguity–it does not–, but because its methodology involves fallible heuristic deliberation and not absolute fiats: the virtuous man is like this, Aristotle suggests to us, providing practical examples and instructing us to look to those we consider virtuous for guidance so that we improve our character. Rand claims the moral man does this, laying down final rules and telling us they can never be transgressed. Context never matters.

There is nothing wrong with some measure of self-regard or egoism; and there is much to be celebrated in individual accomplishment. No opponent of Rand denies this. But the mean is the thing. To excess, the Randian virtues traits lead to a lack of empathy, a poverty of moral imagination, and an inability to recognize that individual accomplishment is always contextual, performed against a backdrop of happy opportunity and moral luck–and, all too often, a long history of ‘cooperation’ that can certainly not be termed ‘voluntary.’ Individualism, for all its merits, is no excuse for ignoring history. Or for glossing over the plain fact that human behaviour, considered in aggregate, is predictable, and that collective responses to contextual factors is, sometimes, the second-best we can do.

Whether or not any useful moral lessons may be drawn from Rand’s work may depend on individual temperament and ability to read with a grain of salt (or more). Poisoned as her work is by absolutism, dogma, and histrionics, it is perhaps best to leave well enough alone and read, instead, Little House on the Prairie if one hungers for stories of ruggedness and survival.


fig. 14. The free market decided this film sucked.


The fate of the recent movie adaptation of Atlas Shrugged provides an illustrative parable about the dangers of deviation from the Aristotelian mean.

In 1992, ten years after Rand’s death, investor and self-described objectivist John Aglialoro bought the rights to Atlas Shrugged for a million dollars, with the condition that the rights expire within twenty years should no movie be produced. Like many projects, the movie remained in what is termed ‘development hell’ for years–shuffling from writer to writer and studio to studio, with various names attached, actors dropping out, and several false starts. Eventually, as the rights were set to expire, the film was rushed to production with a poor script, little budget, and no famous actors.

Produced at a cost of roughly twenty million dollars, it took in less than five at the box-office. Critics deemed it a flop; even sympathetic audiences found it stilted and clunky. In other words, the rational self-interest of the movie producers–who were set to lose the rights to the film–ensured that a shoddy and mediocre money-loser would make it to cinemas. Perhaps if more focus had been put on, say, creativity, or collaboration, or the selfless dedication art requires–perhaps if Aglialoro had been able to put aside his investment, take the hit, and hand over the movie to more capable hands, the value of the brand might have been better served. As it is, Atlas Shrugged – Part 1 works better as its own cautionary tale about the values it espouses. (The forthcoming sequel, financed by a private debt sale, reminds us that even money-losers can get a free lunch if they serve the right interests).

In final analysis, for all Rand’s emphasis on non-conformity and individualism, the greatest irony is perhaps the sheer amount of charity money that her thought has attracted–in America, at least, it represents an absolutely unprecedented interest in metaphysical speculation, typically the domain of continental Europe.

Now perhaps Rand’s work truly constitutes the most important and greatest progress in philosophy since Plato and Aristotle, superseding Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Russell, Wittgenstein, and all the rest. We should count ourselves lucky that the fortunate deign to enlighten us, relieve us of our intellectual torpor, provide us with the genuine grounds for an intellectually serious life free of parasitism, to celebrate the entrepreneur within, and, perhaps, just maybe, let little children get some real work experience. Once free of the encumbrances of a tyrannical collectivist nanny-state that forces unwilling and unwitting children to go to such a vicious and unjust imposition as taxpayer-funded grade school, perhaps the dark ages can be narrowly avoided. Lucky, indeed, that the rich should, just this once, exempt themselves from selfishness to educate pro bono.

fig. 15. Great and selfless patrons of the arts, too.

Or maybe we should heed Machiavelli’s warning: “Politics,” he wrote, “have no relation to morals.”

He had in mind, particularly, the Borgias.



  1. Richard Baron August 27, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    The polarizing effect is indeed remarkable, and, I think, unnecessary. I regard myself as a Rand moderate on her specific economic and ethical doctrines, not lukewarm about each separate doctrine, but firmly accepting some and firmly rejecting others. Having said that, I cannot see her as a significant philosopher, because she did not support her views with arguments that can stand up to academic scrutiny.

    By coincidence, I posted a few thoughts on the polarization, a couple of days after you made your post but shortly before reading your post, having found it via Brian Leiter’s blog. My thoughts are here:

  2. Quote for the day. | liberal reflections August 27, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    […] tip to an exhaustive, sprawling analysis of the Randian cult available here. Share this:Share on TumblrLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. August 27, 2012 by […]

  3. Blinn Combs August 27, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    Thanks for this essay; it’s both engaging and well-balanced. Problematically, most sustained treatments of Rand tend to come either from the converted, or (only slightly better) the recently lapsed. Given the reliably shallow philosophical bona fides of this cohort, it’s not surprising that there’s very little meat there. At the same time, most commentators of the out-of-group perspective tend to be (I would say justifiably) hostile to the point of engaging mainly through ridicule. This is warranted, but not particularly helpful to people who both lack a background in philosophy and whose first brush with political argument comes from Rand’s work. As you rightly note, it’s precisely this combination–something like base-rate ignorance combined with ready availability, which explains much of the appeal.

    Thanks for providing the valuable work of baloney detection!

  4. B Leigh Smith August 27, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    “One wonders at the type of celebration of ‘life’ that centers around satisfied joy at the perishing of so-called ‘parasites.”

    The above assertion is one of the earlier and more blatantly dishonest statements (though certainly not the first blatant ad hom) made in this blog post – a post overflowing with such lies, smears, and overt dishonesty. The blogger quotes Alan Greenspan, who states:

    “”Atlas Shrugged’ is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.”

    In other words, he describes creative individuals who achieve joy and fulfillment by means of undeviating purpose and rationality. But the blog poster here chooses to lie and claim Greenspan is saying the individual’s joy and fulfillment comes *from* the perishing of the parasites. In fact he claims that Rand’s characters’ joy “centers” on those others – the joy is derived from the suffering of those others. That Miss Rand’s book is a celebration of this form of ‘joy’.

    This is a deliberate fabrication on the part of the blogger. It is a lie.

    The blogger has claimed the opposite of what Greenspan stated and what Miss Rand promotes. What he describes is what Rand identifies as “secondhandedness” – something she does not “celebrate” but in fact *condemns*!

    This is not an innocent error on the part of this blogger. It is a deliberate misrepresentation of Miss Rand and her philosophy. It is the creation of a straw man, which he attacks – because he cannot attack her actual philosophy. Because he cannot attack it, but does not want it to stand, he must resort to fallacies instead. He must create falsehoods – fictions – which he then pretends are Miss Rand.

    Why do all this – why engage in such massive dishonesty? To try to hide the truth from others. He does not want others to identify the facts – the actual ideas Miss Rand presents. So he pretends to present them and hopes others will accept his falsehoods.

    He hopes others will be second-handers. He hopes they will not go to the source but will instead accept his conclusions on faith.

    For the honest intellectual, don’t be taken in by the duplicity of Miss Rand’s enemies. Don’t rely on smears they try to pass off as ‘fact’. Don’t be a second-hander. Don’t rely on the conclusions of others. Don’t act on faith. Be independent. Be rational. Read what she *actually* wrote. Come to your own conclusions based on actual facts, not false assertions. Bypass those who would try to derail you from identifying Rand’s actual philosophy.

    Put simply, don’t let the dishonest men, like this blogger, dupe you. Practice reason and independent judgment. That way, whether you end up agreeing or disagreeing with Miss Rand, you will have done so on the basis of fact, reason, and your own independent judgment – not lies and faith.

  5. Brian August 27, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    I think you’ve attracted your first real live member of the Rand cult, whose dialectical skill is at the level of Rand’s!

    • Apollo August 27, 2012 at 6:54 pm

      How about actually dealing with what he posted instead of just calling him a cultist?

  6. Nicolas McGinnis August 27, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    B Leigh Smith –

    I appreciate your concern about my reading of Greenspan’s written remarks. I assure you I was not deliberately trying to misdirect readers by distorting the meaning of the quote. When Greenspan said that “parasites … perish as they should,” I found the “as they should” pregnant with meaning. The ‘should’ implied a normative dimension that placed the assertion within the context of the statement about ‘unrelenting’ justice, which immediately follows the sentence about the “celebration of life.”

    Given that Rand’s view is that ‘life’ has a sole and unique value, it stood to reason that the only way to properly celebrate life is to dispense a justice such that producers thrive and parasites die. This does not imply that Greenspan, or Randians generally, derive *pleasure* from the elimination of the so-called ‘unproductive’, but–however–it seems pretty clear that, for Rand, to celebrate *life*–what life intrinsically is, necessarily so– requires that those who avoid “purpose” and “reason,” that is, those who deny the essential telos of life, perish. (A situation where ‘parasites’ multiply is not one where life is being celebrated, in other words.)

    I cannot help but wonder how charitable you would be faced with a quote from, say, Lenin about bourgeois parasites. It is rather unnerving, in fact, how similar all this is to the discourse of the Soviet Union, which enforced “social parasitism” laws:

    The only difference seems to be that in one case, the State is enforcing a “productive” and “anti-parasite” eliminativist discourse, whereas for Randians, the so-called “market” performs the same function. The difference seems to be that you think this latter mechanism is moral, because the individual is putatively responsible for their own fate, entirely. This denies the existence of moral luck ( But, plainly, there is such a thing as moral luck. Therefore, this view is false.

  7. B Leigh Smith August 27, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    “The ‘should’ implied a normative dimension that placed the assertion within the context of the statement about ‘unrelenting’ justice,”

    Indeed. And the “unrelenting justice” applied to BOTH parties – those “creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality” justly earn their “joy and fulfillment”. And those “parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason” do not earn such “joy and fulfillment” but instead justly “perish”. What Miss Rand “celebrates” is virtue and its reward – the values pursued – ie “life and happiness”. Both those things are not granted automatically but must be achieved. That is the justice referenced. And if one has read Atlas Shrugged, one is quite aware of this fact. One is quite aware of her views of rationality, independence, and second-handers. To claim that Miss Rand preaches a “celebration of ‘life’ that centers around satisfied joy at the perishing of so-called ‘parasites”” is to completely and purposefully present the opposite of her entire philosophy, as expressed through her entire book.

    In other words, you deliberately drop the context of her entire novel in order to make that assertion, based on a brief summary presented by someone else.

    That is not an honest error. That is deliberate misrepresentation. It is deliberate dishonesty.

    “it seems pretty clear that, for Rand, to celebrate *life*–what life intrinsically is, necessarily so– requires that those who avoid “purpose” and “reason,” that is, those who deny the essential telos of life, perish.”

    This is false. For an individual to celebrate his life and his happiness does not require others to perish. If they indeed initiate force against him, as she makes clear, they are properly stopped. But other than that protection of his freedom, his life and happiness do not require anything of parasites, etc.. That was one of the fundamental premises of the novel. That the producer does not require anything from the parasite. That was the purpose of the strike – to show that very thing.

    Again, to make this claim is to completely drop the context of her entire story and philosophy as she explicitly lays it out in her novel. And, again, such a *massively* dropped context is *not* the result of an innocent error.

    ” It is rather unnerving, in fact, how similar all this is to the discourse of the Soviet Union, which enforced “social parasitism” laws:”

    And now you drop the entire point she made about the difference between voluntary human interaction and the initiation of force. You PRETEND that what she wants is the same thing as the Soviet Union wanted – that self-defense and murder are the SAME thing – because both are about “unnervingly” about ‘killing’. You purposefully evade her *entire* argument about the difference between the two and condemn her by trying to place her in the same category.

    This is why I say you are completely dishonest. You do not argue against Miss Rand. You do not present HER arguments and attempt to use reason against them. You manufacture falsehoods and present them as if they were hers. That is lying.

    And that is why I suggest anyone honestly interested in the facts about Miss Rand’s philosophy look to her actual work. That way they can independently judge her work rationally rather than accepting such lies as if they were the truth.

    As to your assertions about “luck”, it is not “luck” which causes individuals to pursue “undeviating purpose” and “rationality”. Nor is it “luck” which causes individuals to “avoid purpose or reason”. These are all choices an individual makes every moment of every day in regard to reality around him.

    In other words, you once again present an argument which is NOT Miss Rand’s argument. Attack *it*. And then declare *her* wrong because your manufactured argument is wrong.

    Attacking deliberately manufactured straw men here is the problem. Presenting falsehoods in place of Miss Rand’s actual ideas is the problem.

    And the solution, as I’ve previously indicated, is for the honestly interested individual to view her work first hand, rather than relying upon second hand assertions – assertions which are blatantly false.

    Atlas Shrugged’ is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.”

  8. Nicolas McGinnis August 27, 2012 at 10:00 pm


    I am reminded of a comment on your blog when the SEP entry was first brought up: “try to avoid introducing her name into an otherwise serious discussion anywhere on the internet, or this sort of drivel will start to surface like globs of oil on a Louisiana beach, and end up polluting everything.”

  9. Nicolas McGinnis August 27, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    B Leigh Smith–

    You’re putting words in my mouth here, after I explicitly said I did not think that the Randian ethic required deriving pleasure from perishing. I do say–and you agree–that Randians are perfectly fine with the suffering of ‘unproductive’ elements, that this very thing is in fact fine and quite just; I find it morally abhorrent, but I suppose we can agree to disagree.

    You seem also unable to understand the concept of ‘moral luck’ by your assimilation of it with the ordinary sense of ‘luck.’ While there is a distinction between acting towards x, and letting x happen, it is precisely because I do not think it makes a moral difference in this case that I contest the picture you present: in part because of ‘moral luck’, and in part because I do not view the ‘market’ as a neutral evaluative entity, but an active collusion of coercive interests.

    In any event, I do encourage readers to look after the primary sources and draw their own conclusions. Thank you for contributing.

  10. B Leigh Smith August 27, 2012 at 10:55 pm

    Oh and this statement:

    ““One wonders at the type of celebration of ‘life’ that centers around satisfied joy at the perishing of so-called ‘parasites.””

    most certainly does more than “imply”, it actually STATES “that Greenspan, or Randians generally, derive *pleasure* from the elimination of the so-called ‘unproductive’”

    Now, if you want to RESCIND that original claim, then please do so. Otherwise your straw man, and the identification of it as such, stands.

  11. A Random Philosopher August 28, 2012 at 6:08 am

    What would truly be remarkable, is if there were some web forum set up where professionally-trained philosophers, both pro-Rand and anti-Rand, could have it out. I’d estimate that the number of philosophers *at least reasonably* well-versed in Rand, or take her seriously enough to engage her ideas indepth, is more or less split between the pro-side and the anti-side. I make that observation merely to point out that such a web-debate wouldn’t be lopsided numbers-wise, the way the numbers are lopsided if you were to compare the number of those academic philosophers who take her seriously to that of the academic community as a whole. As we all should know, however, truth doesn’t reside in numbers of people affirming something as true.

    What the above blog post glaringly neglects to mention is the *academic literature on Rand*, which includes such works as Tara Smith’s “Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics” published by CUP, and Chris Matthew Sciabarra’s “Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.” (This latter work, very extensively researched, proposes a thesis that directly contradicts one of your characterizations: that Rand ignores *context* of all things. Context is fundamental, central, and crucial to Rand’s methodology.) The amount of academic literature on Rand is small indeed, but it’s there. I think that familiarity with works such as these should be a prerequisite for entering the sort of web-debate I wishfully propose above. There is, in addition, the Ayn Rand Society – – a professional association within the APA. Steering committee members have included Douglas Rasmussen, who (along with Douglas Den Uyl) wrote a response to Nozick, “Nozick on the Randian Argument,” in the same journal some years later, which reformulates the Randian argument along neo-Aristotelian lines. It does no one any good to pretend that such rebuttals don’t exist.

    There are many characterizations and claims in the blog post which mischaracterize Rand’s views on key points (the one about context already mentioned), or subtly misfire, or simply miss their mark. This is *not* to say that Rand isn’t open to well-supported criticism – like the way Rand herself mischaracterizes, subtly misfires, or simply misses her mark when discussing other philosophers – such as Kant most especially. While Rand does make the presumption to her readers of being a competent historian of philosophy, she makes next to no pretense to being a *scholarly* interpreter of such figures. That wasn’t her thing. And that is part of what diminishes any value there might be in her commentary on the history of philosophy. By the same token, if one is to make the representation of approaching Rand in a scholarly fashion, it simply won’t do not to engage the most prominent extant scholarly literature. Ask yourself whether Sciabarra or Prof. Smith would take your criticisms seriously on their scholarly merits alone, let alone the quality of the criticisms. (They would not, on either count.)

    It is easy to cherry-pick some of Rand’s statements that cast her in a more negative light, but if we’re going to keep the *full context,* it is only fair that the statements that cast her in a positive light also be just as prominently featured – else people are left with little idea as to why Rand really does carry the appeal that she does. If it were all about her making all kinds of philosophical claims simply on the basis of “A is A,” one would be left with the impression that she and her followers (and the aforementioned academic scholars!) aren’t all that well-versed in critical thinking. A fictional character stating that man’s rights are based on “A is A” is indeed a rhetorical approach – but one of condensing a vast set of observations, of summarizing a vast *context,* and such statements cannot be taken in isolation from their extensive *context*. All kinds of considerations come to bear on such a statement – some sort of “essentialist” view about humans having an identifiable and definable nature, that to be is to be something of a specific nature (she holds the law of identity to be a principle primarily of *metaphysics*, about the character of being qua being, and her neo/quasi-Aristotelian approach to metaphysics does not dualistically divorce metaphysics from empirical content – i.e., the law of identity has a natural and empirical aspect). Furthermore, it’s completely unfounded – and in fact contradictory to Rand’s own statements – for Nozick (and you, repeating Nozick) to ascribe to Rand the notion that “A is A” means that A cannot change. Hell, if you look at the way she quotes from Aristotle very near the end of “Atlas,” she qualifies her own view of identity the way he does: “at the same time and in the same respect.” Now, Nozick didn’t have such a thing as the Ayn Rand Lexicon at his avail back in 1971, so Rand-scholarship that seemed appropriate then would be viewed as most sloppy today given the scholarship resources that now exist (not the least of which is the Rasmussen-Den Uyl rebuttal).

    By the way, if you’re going to bring up Nozick, either regarding his critique of “the Randian argument” or how well his “AS&U” treatise was received by the left-leaning academic mainstream, you might as well also mention his later article on why intellectuals oppose capitalism. That may better put into context the statement in the Stanford Encyclopedia entry about the relative lack of attention her views have received in the academy given her political views. If her arguments were so pitifully bad as to be unworthy of academic attention, that’s one thing. That her arguments aren’t presented in academic format might better help to explain things here, though that doesn’t directly speak to the inherent merits of her arguments. The only issue of concern is whether her arguments are good or not. Now, people like Rasmussen and Den Uyl, who have devoted oodles of attention to Rand’s ideas, would probably say that Rand is pretty much right in the basics even if they aren’t spelled out at the level of detail that academics crave. (She wasn’t writing for that audience; she was writing at a level that the “ordinary folk” could understand, and she had this habit of condensing philosophical ideas down to their “essence” in the briefest way she could state them, as a matter of economy and attention-grabbingness. It took conversations like those she had with John Hospers to tease out all the intricate details – and I don’t think he left disappointed.) What you have in works like Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s, and Smith’s, and Sciabarra’s, are extensive and detailed workings-out of the core principles. You want a basically Randian argument for rights in fully-fleshed-out academic detail? There’s Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s “Norms of Liberty.” You want the Randian normative ethics fleshed out in academic detail? There’s Smith’s “Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics.” You want her philosophical methodology spelled out in detail? There’s Sciabarra’s academic work, “Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical” and Leonard Peikoff’s non-academic (but fully expert on Rand) lecture series “Understanding Objectivism,” released in book form earlier this year.

    Now, none of this justifies the conceit you point out among some of her devotees that Rand massively supersedes all other philosophers in history save for Aristotle. As you point out, Anscombe and others were working in 1957. It is also warranted to point out that Rand, in addition to Anscombe and Foot and Veatch and others, contributed to the neo-Aristotelian revival in ethics around that time. When Rand composed her paper, “The Objectivist Ethics,” you have to consider the context of the times in which she was writing it, before virtue ethics had had its revival. In *that* context, Rand was well ahead of many of her contemporaries on some of the most important questions in ethical theory. This is *not* to say that she stands out as something really, really special over and above all the other philosophers in history (save again for Aristotle). It *is* to say that she was, in her own fashion, a serious truth-seeker doing her best in the context of her time to make systematic sense of the world almost all on her own (that is, after she parted ways with Isabel Paterson in the late ’40s), which puts her squarely in the category of “serious philosopher” – in addition to many, many other serious philosophers who also deserve to be taken seriously and studied (take note of this latter part, hardcore Rand-worshippers).

    This is getting long, and I don’t mean to filibuster. But I think you get the idea. I didn’t even expound further on how Rand’s “A is A” comes to bear on her argument for rights in the full philosophical context (I merely addressed her interpretation/variation on Aristotle’s formulation as far as metaphysics goes), though you could get the fleshed-out idea in places like the aforementioned “Norms of Liberty.” And I hope it gives a good idea as to why I’d love to see a bona fide webbed Rand-debate forum where “the Rand experts” could put it all on display for people to see. That would, I think, go a long way toward bridging the unfortunate gap between Rand’s widespread cultural appeal in America and her near-neglect within the academy. We cannot, as a political community (which is much broader than the academic community), have a meaningful and informed debate on the political issues of our time at the highest level unless the competing views get a full airing-out from the most qualified/expert proponents of those ideas. An academic circle-jerk won’t accomplish any such thing besides an implicit or explicit contempt for “the masses.” The flipside of the academic circle-jerk is the “average American” ignoring what the academics say (due to their “being up in those ivory towers of theory sheltered from the real world”), leading to a national political debate that is that much more impoverished, like what we’re getting on TV. What we desperately, urgently need a mutual coming-to-terms. Also, with such a forum of experts having it out, the professors who get inundated with those new students every year pushing the Randian line can direct their attention to the webbed Rand-debate forum. A win-win all around! 🙂 (And why the hell hasn’t this happened already? Does the cultural acrimony over Rand need to come to a bulging, pulsating head before it does?)

  12. Matt August 28, 2012 at 10:14 am

    B Leigh Smith: it’s somewhat ambiguous whether the “at” in the sentence that’s making you froth at the mouth should really be read as a “towards” or as an “at the same time as.” In the former case, the “at” is directional, expressing the object of Randian joy: the suffering of the unproductive. In the latter case, on the other hand, the “at” is more or less indicating a position in time (in this case, contemporaneity with something else) with no implication of one being caused by the other.

    But even if your interpretation of McGinnis’ “at” is correct, it’s unclear what you’ve actually gained. Maybe you’ve showed that he’s got a bit of a bias, but any third grader could tell you that just by reading the picture captions. His substantive criticisms of Rand’s philosophy are utterly devastating, and your huge, flailing fuss about his remarks on Randian joy is ultimately a bunch of whiney nitpicking. You said in your first post that McGinnis “cannot attack her actual philosophy,” but that’s precisely what he did do in the rest of the post. It seems to me, rather, that you cannot defend her philosophy, and so you go on rabid tirades about some minor remark that may or may not be fallacious. Why don’t you do some philosophical heavy lifting and defend Rand from McGinnis’s withering criticisms. Let’s start with the logic.

    • B Leigh Smith August 29, 2012 at 1:07 am

      “if your interpretation of McGinnis’ “at” is correct, it’s unclear what you’ve actually gained.”

      What is gained is the identification of his claims as false – deliberately so. And it is gained in regard to the supposed summary of the work he is attacking. By demonstrating that the author cannot even honestly summarize the words he quotes in his own article, it calls into question all his subsequent claims about that work.

      I am sorry that such a demonstration does not lead you to even question his subsequent “criticisms”. As indicated, they are simply attacks upon straw men, not Miss Rand’s actual ideas. As such, they are not “substantive” let alone “devastating”.

      “you said in your first post that McGinnis “cannot attack her actual philosophy,” but that’s precisely what he did do in the rest of the post.”

      Attacking straw men is what he did. If you believe otherwise, please provide an example of what you claim is his honest and accurate presentation of one of her ideas, along with a rational refutation of it. Simply accepting his words, in contradiction to the major misrepresentation he provides early on in his work (combined with all his ad homs, mud slinging, and other blatant fallacies), is an act of faith, not reason. It is the acceptance of something in contradiction to, rather than in accord with, the facts.

      You claim you want to start with logic. But you begin with its opposite.

      It is for this very reason that I admonished those honestly interested in Miss Rand’s ideas to look to her actual work. I am sorry you did not choose to heed that rational recommendation.

  13. AG August 28, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    But dude, isn’t Atlas Shrugged an extended fantasy in which Randian geniuses get to inflict this supposedly deserved suffering on the so-called parasites? I can’t see any other way to read it, given the ending. And if so, isn’t it natural to think that Greenspan et al must really enjoy this fantasy?

  14. AG August 28, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    Obviously, dude = B Leigh Smith. I should learn to refresh before posting comments.

  15. Nicolas McGinnis August 28, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    The issue is a distraction, but frankly, I don’t know how else to read this quote. One last time:

    ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.

    The novel contains a summary and exposition of her philosophy. So this is a paraphrase which conveys my reading of Greenspan’s remarks:

    Ayn Rand’s philosophy is a celebration of life and happiness in which an unrelenting justice is served, one that rewards the productive and disposes of the parasites.

    It is precisely because this justice is served that the philosophy is celebratory of what life properly is. The philosophy is celebratory, though particular individuals do not ‘celebrate’ or throw parties when the homeless die: what is celebrated in her thought is the inherent, rational justice of unproductive elements ‘perishing’. But I find the entire discourse morally odious. The egregious and monstruous simplification of the complexity of life–its hazard, illnesses, precarities, vulnerabilities, histories, the entire baggage of context–reduced to a binary, the choice between ‘using one’s reason’ and not—it is, quite properly, evil. There is no justice when so-called parasites ‘perish’. There is only the immorality of fellow man standing by and doing nothing.

    Elie Wiesel wrote that “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.” The essence of duty is found in what we owe to each other. The anti-life philosophy is the denial of this duty and the justification of an indifference to death and suffering. And this is why I should bother even writing any of this.

  16. Billy Pilgrim August 28, 2012 at 3:48 pm


    I think it points to the strength of McGinnis’ argument that you are forced to address one minute section of his lengthy discussion of Ayn Rand’s questionable philosophy. You claim to be upset that McGinnis (supposedly) “STATES” that Randians directly obtain pleasure from the suffering of the parasitic masses Rand portrays in her works. However, it is not so hard to see that you are actually a tad bit hurt over the reasonable and thought-provoking analysis that damages, no doubt, a hero of yours. If you desire to assert that the author has attacked a straw man (rather than Rand’s actual ideas), bringing up more than one insignificant example might help your cause. Of course when critiquing someone, it is not possible to present the totality of their views completely objectively-I would be more careful before pointing out a fallacy that is not to be found in this paper.

    On another note, a statement of yours implicates Rand to be downright stupid if we are to take your word for it.
    “That the producer does not require anything from the parasite. That was the purpose of the strike – to show that very thing”
    If, you in fact, believe that what you wrote here is true, than you take Rand to be an imbecile completely out of touch with reality, logic, and reason. How would anything the producers produce have value without the “parasitic” masses that utilize products? Being a non-parasite requires lower individuals to exist. Everything about the distinction between parasites and producers necessitates the dual existence of those who make, and those who use what is made. “The producer does not require anything from the parasite”-except for his body to overwork, his mind to manipulate, and his earnings to take.
    It is my belief that McGinnis wrote a very respectable and convincing article regarding an important and popular American figure. I just wish you had voiced an equally defensible response.

    • B Leigh Smith August 29, 2012 at 12:48 am

      “How would anything the producers produce have value without the “parasitic” masses that utilize products?”

      Apparently you believe that the individuals in Galt’s Gulch, who were neither parasites nor the “masses”, traded no values with one another.

      Thank you for making clear you haven’t read, let alone understood, the work and ideas you sneeringly (ie fallaciously) attack. Thank you for your display of a stream of ad homs and psychologizing in place of rational argumentation. And thank you for making clear your belief that a deliberate lie presented as the *summary* of the work the blogger attacks is merely ‘minutia’. All these things demonstrate you have no actual knowledge of Miss Rand’s ideas – but that you won’t let a little thing like a lack of facts prevent you from lashing out at that which you are ignorant.

  17. A Random Philosopher August 28, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    Re: the perishing of parasites. Has it occurred to Rand’s rather shrill critics that the parasites she has in mind are *not* the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, etc., but the Orren Boyles, the Balph Eubanks, the Mr. Thompsons, the James Taggarts, the Wesley Mouches, the Floyd Ferrises, the Philip and Lillian Reardens, the Robert Stadlers, et al? Sure, you might regard them as one-dimensional caricature figures (though there is a clear conflict in Stadler, who was once honorable but evades/chooses evil), but aren’t these the ones deserving of their fate? The “ordinary” people who perish in the Taggart Tunnel did *not* deserve to perish, but Rand describes the ideas they all hold to *illustrate the power of ideas* for good or for evil. Rand reportedly cried when writing out the fate of Gail Wynand. Did she enjoy watching his evasions lead to his demise? Of course not. What’s more, when you think of the above-named villains in *Atlas* when the term “parasite” is brought to mind, doesn’t that make *a lot more sense* than Rand targeting the poor, the vulnerable, etc.? Doesn’t it make it more of an interesting challenge to tear down Rand, then, as opposed to the swift and easy knock-down of a strawman? Isn’t going after the opponent’s strongest argument the essence of philosophical method and of intellectual charity? (It’s like I’m repeating myself now, but Rand has similar flaws when approaching Kant and other “villains” in the history of philosophy. Two-way street. Or, better yet, how about we walk down the street – peripatetically, if you must – in the same direction with the same goal in mind.)

    That said, why shouldn’t reality be its own avenger – that the Mouches and Ferrises and Thompsons perish due to their own anti-life choices/evasions? Is that not justice? And it’s not like the strikers didn’t offer them an olive branch of sorts – assuming they could sit through the entirety of Galt’s interminable speech 😉 – to allow them the opportunity to change their ways before the final collapse. If you want to blame someone for the collapse, do you look at the strikers who are withdrawing their sanction and services on terms other than what they consent to (fundamentally, that the mind be left free to function as it is [axiomatically?] supposed to), or is the blame rightly placed on those in the established power structure who endlessly evade the requirements of proper human existence? When you bash Rand, you’re by extension bashing the strikers and assigning to them the responsibility of the civilization perishing. Is that justice?

    (The further twist to all this is to ask whether Galt and the strikers could have accomplished their aims without going on a secret strike and not letting society know about it until nearly the end. That goes to the realism of the plot. The original premise of the plot, though, was what if the “men of the mind and of ability” (and note that Galt’s Gulch is filled with some “non-elites,” the fishwife for instance wink wink) were to go on strike, the way the laborers were carrying out strikes in the Red Decade and after on the apparent assumption that their physical labor is the prime mover of wealth-creation. The realism of the plot is a distinct issue, though; the theme of the novel is “the role of the mind in man’s existence,” and if people fail to get *that*, then they miss the whole point of the novel. Their loss.)

    Damn, it feels downright easy decisively defending Rand at this point. Don’t the critics have anything better? I mean, how *hard* is it to figure out that the parasites Rand has primarily in mind are the Mouches et al?

    Here’s a better example to harp on, if you had paid attention to the novel as Rand had expected her readers to do: As Dagny and the other heroes go to rescue Galt toward the end, she aims a gun at the heart of a rank-and-file guard blocking her way, and shoots him dead. The rationale was that this was the logically appropriate response to someone who had evaded the responsibility of thinking even when they had a gun pointed at them (aha! how does a gun make someone think, Galt asks earlier? you were paying attention there, too, right?) and had the chance to move out of the way? Question being: was shooting this guard dead *necessary* to carry out the rescue? Did Rand think this scenario through adequately? Was time too much of a factor to concern oneself with alternative measures? (Gee, it may very well have been.) Anyway, it’s easy to subject Rand to effective criticism or challenge, as long as one knows what the hell one is doing. In my experience, few seem to manage it. To do it most effectively would probably require extensive familiarity with things like Peikoff’s “Understanding Objectivism,” though at that point you do get into the problem of invoking Rand in order to deny her. I think if you’re dedicated enough to do that, you should be commended. In any event, how does one carry out a resounding, convincing criticism of whatever Rand got wrong, without thoroughly studying up on the subject? Are her critics expected to be taken seriously if they don’t even *bother* with the now-published “Understanding Objectivism” much less Peikoff’s earlier primer “OPAR”? Do we simply ignore what her best student, top-notch interpreter and chosen heir has to say? For that matter, do we one-sidedly latch onto the “hazards” part of Nathaniel Branden’s “Benefits and Hazards” essay? That doesn’t strike me as good scholarship at all. I dunno, seems like I’m shooting fish in a barrel at this point. Please prove me wrong. 😉

  18. A Random Philosopher August 28, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    “The fantastically rich find in Rand’s celebration of individual achievement a kindred spirit, and support her work with pecuniary enthusiasm: in 1999, McGill University turned down a million-dollar endowment from wealthy businessman Gilles Tremblay, who had given the money in the hopes of creating a chair dedicated to the the study of her work. Then-president Bernard Shapiro commented that “we can’t just sell our souls just for the sake of being richer,” hopefully aware of the irony: what else is there but getting richer? Rand literally ends her most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, with the dollar sign replacing the sign of the cross, traced in the air–indicating the dawn of a new, bold, daringly sophomoric era.”

    So is this why Wynand is supposed to be the hero of “The Fountainhead,” seeing as Roark turned down an integrity-compromising commission, followed by his having to close up shop? It’s all about the dollars in her value hierarchy, just because the hero traces the sign of the dollar in the air? Are you sure this is careful, nuanced analysis?

    I could go on and on like this, you know. 😀

  19. exploderator August 29, 2012 at 12:13 am

    Thanks for a solid peek into the world / cult of Rand, a subject which I had so far not got around to investigating for myself in such depth, and for which omission I no longer feel any significant deficiency in my self-education budget.

    Frankly, Randian gunk has too often popped up along side too many other dubious assertions for me to have ever bothered digging in with gusto, and the cursory forays I’ve made otherwise have only exposed simple show stoppers (for me), such as her effective hate-on for basics like empathy and cooperation, which I see as the only sound organizational core instincts we silly monkeys might hope to survive by.

    Now if only you could recommend the economic equivalent to your fine essay here, regarding Friedman, I’d be all set. I guess I’ll just have to do some of my own homework after all 😉

    Cheers, and thanks again, great read, and really appreciated the humor too (don’t listen to those who would have you be boring, you’re doing it right).

  20. […] Nicholas McGinnis takes down Rand, including a close look at some of her faux arguments, in “The System that Wasn’t There: Ayn Rand’s Failed Philosophy (and why it matters).” Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. from → Uncategorized ← None dare call […]

  21. […] for would-be GOPers, Ayn Rand and a discussion of her “philosophy”, which seems to have all of the depth and consistency of L.Ron. Hubbard’s Scientology, albeit […]

  22. John Galt August 29, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” -Ghandi

    Or, perhaps:

    “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” -Schopenhauer

  23. Eric M. August 29, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    This essay contains perhaps one of the longest straw man bashings on the internet. For Ayn Rand, the axioms of Objectivism are not starting points for the deduction of a philosophy; they are, rather, what make the *induction* of general, philosophical principles possible.

    This assumption that philosophy must be essentially deductive is one of the major problems that mainstream academics have in understanding Objectivism. In particular, it is what afflicts Nozick’s attempted analysis of Rand’s meta-ethical argument; he is trying to understand an essentially inductive argument as a deductive one. So it is no surprise that he thinks the conclusions are unsupported.

    I recommend this post for more detail on my point, along with the book referenced there:

  24. A Random Philosopher August 30, 2012 at 7:15 am

    No rebuttals to my comments? Nothing? I thought the blog posting was supposed to be, in the word of one clueless commenter (, “a solid peek into the world / cult of Rand”? No retractions of obvious misrepresentations? No reworkings to take into account strong criticism? This is a *philosophy* blog, is it not? We’re supposed to be learning why philosophers needn’t take Rand seriously, are we not? How can we learn when there’s no response to feedback? Are we just supposed to pretend that the existing body of Rand scholarship doesn’t exist? Only the “cultists” merit (derisory) responses? Well . . . what?

    I’m just amazed that, 50 years after “The Objectivist Ethics,” and nearly 70 years after *The Fountainhead*, the Rand-bashers *stil* cannot (refuse to?) demonstrate a sound understanding of what they’re bashing. When it’s explained to them that they are sloppily, incompetently, misunderstanding – in obvious ways, no less – I’ve seen many of them retreat to some formulaic sneer about how “only the cult truly understands.” Give me an effing break! “Only the cult truly understands” that the parasites are the Mouches/Thompsons/Keatings/Tooheys, or that Roark does in fact respect and practice “basics like empathy and cooperation”?

    I have the impression that the state of Rand interpretation was hardly even close to this bad during the time she was writing her newsletters and giving addresses, and was a well-known contemporary commentator. A few mediocre book-length critiques appeared in the decade following the Branden Break. Not understanding the power and basis of Rand’s appeal, the critics don’t bother with her for a couple decades, and neither is there much in the way of favorable commentary. But then comes a new generational wave that comes of age around the time of Sciabarra’s “Russian Radical” – the generation including Jimmy Wales – and the state of Rand scholarship has been picking up steam since. The interest in Rand didn’t die out as the critics had hoped. Listening to those very critics, you’d never be able to tell that there was a post-Sciabarra universe of Rand scholarship.

    Had Miss Rand been around today to observe this, I think she would say something to the effect of, “This is not an honest mistake.” So far the critics don’t seem much interested in proving such a hypothesis mistaken. Some years back, the standard formulaic sneer was that Rand wasn’t a serious enough philosopher to be taken seriously in the academy. You’d think that with the appearance of the Smith book in 2006, and with the existence and activities of the Ayn Rand Society, these folks would be responsive to new information.

    Just wait until the newest generational wave reads and absorbs not just Smith’s book, but also Peikoff’s “Understanding Objectivism,” previously only available to the “inner cult” in expensive recorded format. The stale academic mainstream is going to have a problem on its hands, then. Those obnoxious undergrads are going to be fortified that much more; absent effective rebuttal from the mainstream academy, more of those students will enter grad school and wreak more of their “havoc.” Now, either this will be a bad thing in virtue of Rand being a weak philosopher, or this will be a good thing in virtue of Rand being not nearly the weak philosopher the cult of Rand-bashers makes her out to be. You can thank your lucky stars that these new generational waves will also be very big on Aristotle – in virtue of fundamental methodological similarities to Rand, which may be as fundamental a criterion for assessing a philosopher’s merit as any.

    I, for one, don’t care to be on the losing side of history. You might want to be *damn* sure you know what you’re talking about re: “pseudophilosopher” Ayn Rand since I don’t see her conveniently going away anytime soon. (You might also consider just how truly mean-spirited and politically-motivated is the prominent blogger who directed traffic to your, um, flawed analysis. I’ve yet to see anything remotely resembling a fair, accurate, competent or objective commentary on Rand from that person in several years. It’s pathetic really given that person’s stature in the profession.)

  25. Nicolas McGinnis August 30, 2012 at 1:35 pm


    I am preparing a response to several of the criticisms levied above. Please be patient; I have other responsibilities, including a small child, a dissertation, and undergraduate teaching. I will attempt to respond as best I can in the comment section. Until then, I am approving every single comment Objectivists submit (to the point where they have effectively taken over the comment section) so that readers of my piece may see the ‘other side.’

    For the time being, while many critics have taken me to task for my characterization of Rand’s method as deductive, I remain unconvinced that I am wrong on this point, and the bulk of my forthcoming comments will focus on the issue. You also take me to task on my characterization of her ethics by going back to the text of her novels, and I will also have something to say here.

    I do note, however, that no one–either here, or on the Reddit threads dedicated to the post–has spoken to the issues I present in the section on ‘the theory of second-best’ or my more general remarks on comparative methodology, which is a well-supported inductive argument about the epistemic reliability of piece-meal versus comprehensive, ‘total’ approaches. History is not kind to ‘systems.’

    With some luck, my answers will be complete by this evening. After that, I cannot promise any further contribution; life is short, and, cognizant as I am of the total intellectual production of the species to this point, I really wish to move on to other things. There remains poems of Rilke I have not encountered, novels by McCarthy, I’ve been meaning to read Deleuze, and I do not for a moment believe the study of Rand is worth dropping these things.

    (Incidentally, I should make it clear I do not think Rand is stupid–she seems, in effect, rather smart and clever, and certainly productive. The problem is that she–and her followers–insist on comparing her work to that of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hume, and so on, and if that is the comparison class, I am afraid she falls short. As we all do. There are some interesting bits of her philosophy that might be salvaged. There are people I respect working on this (e.g. in the philosophy of science; I can name some names). But if the claim is that Rand’s philosophy, as a total system, is the most important and significant piece of theorizing in several thousand years, one that could ‘solve’ almost every open problem–from induction to value theory to political philosophy–then it is obvious to me that this is complete and utter nonsense. And I have already spent far too much time even thinking about it to worry about what anonymous Randians on the internet think, or whether I have besmirched her reputation with a ‘smear’ job.)

  26. A Random Philosopher August 30, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    If you look at Sciabarra’s “Russian Radical” or – heaven forbid – Peikoff’s “Understanding Objectivism,” you’ll find plenty of evidence that Rand’s methodology is not deductive – that, in fact, Rand was not too keen on an induction/deduction dichotomy and that (in the tradition of Aristotle) she was (or ideally was) rigorously empirical at root.

    (“Dichotomy” here I mean in the dualistic sense discussed by Sciabarra. Yes, there is the plain and commonsensical and strictly logical *distinction* between a process of induction and a process of deduction. However, Rand and Peikoff stressed the cognitive-methodological need to work back and forth between inductive and deductive modes to, shall we say, keep a check on both processes. This has something to do with what Peikoff in “UO” terms the “spiral,” that is, a ongoing systematic return to the perceptual level interwoven with one’s abstract theoretical modes of reasoning.

    I think that any serious Rand scholar – someone on the steering committee of the Ayn Rand Society, say – would consider it unfounded (to put it gently) to ascribe to Rand this supposed deductive approach from “A is A” or the axioms. Have you read Rand’s statements on the cognitive role of axiomatic concepts? It’s in the online Lexicon, pretty easy to look up. The Lexicon, I’ll add, makes it increasingly difficult for her opponents to misrepresent her views and get away with it.

  27. Nicolas McGinnis August 30, 2012 at 9:45 pm


    I do not have much time to spend on this, so I will write off-the-cuff, perhaps to your benefit (readers may take away that I am incapable of responding and take your view more seriously.)

    So. I am not going to read this vast and sophisticated secondary literature on Rand you cite. That’s just not going to happen. Now you may argue that I have no business writing 8,500 word opinion pieces without having done so; and you are within your rights to accordingly lower your evaluation of my intellectual seriousness or sincerity. At every point in one’s life choices must me made about how to spend one’s time. Nothing said so far has convinced me that it would be profitable to read Sciabarra or Smith or Machan. These are hours I could spend on non-classical logic or formal semantics. Or any of a dozen thinkers and subjects.

    It is not at all normal for a ‘philosopher’ to have a half-dozen privately funded institutes. Or to have such specific public policy recommendations that can be made sub specie aeternitatis: Rand cites no empirical research, conducts no study, gathers no data, merely asserts that she knows what monetary policy to follow. This is no way to go about the study of economics or political science. Again, nothing has been said about this argument because nothing can be said. If I fundamentally reject the idea that minimum wage laws can be evaluated from the armchair, then Rand is an intellectual curiosity at best and a useful obfuscation at worst.

    It is also not normal for a ‘philosopher’ to have a complete system that claims to resolve practically every major open question in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and political theory, and gains adherents with a closed system of self-reinforcing internal jargon that continually propounds her world-historical importance. This is the stuff of gurus and cults. There is literally no serious figure in modern intellectual history that even comes close to these kinds of grandiose claims. If you want to find someone like Dr. Brooks over at the ARI, then go to scientologists and see what they say about L. Ron Hubbard: “the greatest human that ever lived, the greatest genius to ever write,” and so on. It’s tedious.

    Yes, some serious philosophers have grappled with her and perhaps produced interesting, useful little bits of actual philosophy. This is an inevitable by-product of the undeserved propagation and emphasis of her ideas. A philosophy department can attract a lot of outside money by being friendly to Rand. If a few million dollars were spent promoting the thought of some half-forgotten figure–Bradley, Whitehead–I’m sure we’d find all kinds of interesting things, because we’re paying good money to clever people to find interesting things. No money accrues to Whitehead because Whitehead didn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince people that the ‘welfare state’ should be liquidated. Only in America.

    These sociological observations will not move you, or any of the ‘objectivists’ still reading the comment thread. Again, I hope the undecided and uncommitted think through this and reach their own conclusions. From my vantage point, it is pretty clear Rand was a smart figure who got in her own way. She might have made a decent thinker if she had any humility whatsoever. A damned waste, really.

    (1) Identity, Method and Logic

    What is the nature of the Randian argument? I’ve asserted it is a piece of deductive armchair reasoning. And further asserted that such armchair analysis cannot be expected to produce any reliable truths about the political, economical, and moral topics Rand discusses. In particular, I focused on the law of identity as exemplar of what is wrong-headed about the approach.

    Let me re-angle the attack. I assume the following is not controversial:

    a. Rand is explicit in her opposition to certain public policy. She advocates a minimalist state, implying a host of negative theses (do not enforce minimum wage laws, do not enforce child labour laws, and so on).

    b. Rand is very explicit that her conclusions can be “proved by means of logic which can be demonstrated to be true and necessary.”

    Yes, I realize the quote is from an interview, and not a ‘sophisticated’ 800-page book on Objectivism written by Serious People. Her words nevertheless have the virtue of being clear and succinct, and there is no question that she meant exactly what she said–even if it was compressed or simplified for a wide audience. But whatever was simplified in the background does not change the meaning of the words–a thesis that can be found again and again in her writings–that her conclusions are true, necessary, and logically demonstrable.

    Do her conclusions follow necessarily from her premises? Yes? That’s a deductive argument. Point final.

    Okay. Good. Now: I don’t think that, among the set of propositions that can be made about public policy in a modern western democracy there is a single logically-deducible necessary truth. Not a single one, not about health care, not about working conditions, not about safety regulations. You can’t get that from the armchair. And if you think there are, then you are quite mad. This is not rhetoric, either. I mean it. If you think that public policy is an armchair pursuit, only ideological capture could explain that fact. The kind of ideological spell that prevents useful information about the world to come in and interfere with the sinkhole of true belief.

    You can’t determine whether some environmental regulation or other is a good idea by reflecting on first principles. I don’t care how much metaphysical or conceptual content is smuggled in. Identity could be the most sophisticated and complex congerie of neo-Aristotelian realism mixed with whatever epistemic requirements you want to build in: it is not going to work.

    (If it is, as some commenters would have it, a sophisticated inductive argument, where are the experiments? What studies have objectivists conducted? What data do they cite? Oh, I can tell you right now: they proceed from how things seem to them about ‘human nature’ and ‘reality.’ If you ask them whether they think a paraconsistent logic might be an effective model of human ratiocination they would know right away that this is impossible. But you can’t know that. Not until you do the hard, boring work of, you know, science.)

    So, I’m sorry, the first thing I am going to do is get rid of every single public policy recommendation objectivists make. Done, gone, out the window. For all any of us know moving towards the completely minimal state recommended could inflict untold harm to millions. You don’t know, I don’t know, and, as an empirical tinkerer, it is not the kind of thing I chance with. The method is not knowledge-producing and I stand by that. You could have the correct metaphysics of identity. I don’t care. You still don’t get government out of that and some hand-waving about the ‘value of life’ and ‘human reason.’ (“Harm, psharm! There is only one morally coherent government!”–this is the essence of the dispute, perhaps).

    In any event, there is plenty of textual support that identity is treated a purely logical tautology sometimes and as an epistemic concept some other times, and a metaphysical truth some other times. No doubt much heavy lifting has been done to reconcile all this. In any event, I don’t care: even if Rand had her metaphysical ducks in a row, her political conclusions don’t follow.

    Now, these putative axioms are top-heavy and ill-considered in any event. It is claimed that they are “implicit in all knowledge, and cannot be rejected without being relied upon in the course of the attempted rejection,” (from the SEP) but then we are told that identity also means that “[an entities] characteristics constitute its identity,” (that’s Peikoff) and so already we are in significant metaphysical trouble, since such a primitive identification of identity conditions with ‘characteristics’ is completely inadequate to the problems of contingency and modality (see, for example, and those presented by physical science (see: In other words: yes, I can reject the axioms. Maybe something different will have to take their place as we puzzle out the metaphysics of identity, that’s fine; the point now is that these ‘axioms’ are not final or indubitable or necessary or even particularly good solutions to philosophical problems.

    I treated ‘A is A’ are logical because that is the only charitable thing to do: at least then it has the force of some intuition, give or take what Graham Priest might think, and it preserves the ‘necessary’ structure of the argument. But considered as a metaphysical principle it’s a complete non-starter. This is typical of her thought. (Her theory of reference is equally primitive: a concept is simply its referent, leaving us with no means to deal with e.g. substitution salva veritate in opaque contexts). She wants her conclusions to be inescapable, and dresses herself in the armature of logic and necessity, but when pressed avails herself of conceptual content that is, when not at least controversial, then obviously false.

    (2) Context and Morality

    Who are the ‘parasites’, indeed! Given the prevailing political uses to which Rand is put–and what social classes suffer from it–I cannot take seriously your exegetical work here. The upshot of the elimination of major parts of the welfare state, including public education, food stamps, and so on, would be to harm the poor, and not the morally compromised petite bourgeoisie or union bosses or whoever else is the ‘real’ target. I have no idea what you think the result of Rand’s politics is supposed to be. If her morality is the boring motivational ‘be true to yourself’, knock yourself out; I’ll be reading Stendhal meanwhile. but I cannot read all this talk of ‘parasites’ in any other way than as justification for indifference. Maybe in some alternate universe Rand opens up grand new vistas of voluntary charity and concern for the poor. In this world it is an excuse to sneer on ‘flu shots’ and food stamps.

    On the issue of the pursuit of money. Roark’s time in the stone quarry might be a matter of personal integrity to him–showing that there are other, higher ideals–but narratively the purpose it serves is to underscore the mediocrity of the world he is thrust in, and in the end, Roark triumphs. The arc of the story is very old. If Rand had made the bold literary choice of having Roark cut stone the remainder of his days, a testament to his moral fibre, that would be one thing. But the hero does not remain in the underworld forever: instead, he finishes on top of his gleaming skyscraper (thus moral integrity is meaningless without the chance to act on it and build something). Was I guilty of lazy writing in the paragraph you mention about McGill? Maybe a little. Rand is not the Ferengi in Star Trek and I will cop to that charge. It was vulgar.

    Finally, about ‘context.’ You say it is important, but I’ve quoted Rand on three occasions claiming that morality is a matter of black and white, and one of my central concerns was that, for Randians, no amount of general welfare could possibly justify exceptions to individual rights. I contrasted this to ancient virtue ethics, which certainly never conceived of public or private morality in this way, but reflected on the dispositions of character of ideally virtuous individuals: ‘imagine what so-and-so would do in this situation,’ in other words, and sometimes that might mean–I don’t know–an act of self-sacrifice, perhaps. Reflection on context is the morality, and not merely the truism that every particular moral judgement is made in some context or other.

    With this, I am done with this thread. The new semester starts in a week and I will begin moderating comments more heavily–and likely not reply to any further discussion. Thank you, everyone, for reading.

    EDIT: Random, reading your blog I see a strong emphasis on separating out your interpretation of Rand–a very idealistic one, with much to admire in ethics and outlook–from the political uses to which she has been put. To the extent that I am criticizing the latter, I apologize if anything above was offensive. I stand by my metaphysical criticisms and methodological criticisms, however.

  28. A Random Philosopher August 30, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    You sure you want to let yours truly have the last word? 😉

  29. B Leigh Smith August 31, 2012 at 9:01 am

    “I am not going to read this vast and sophisticated secondary literature on Rand you cite.”

    Yeah! I’m only going to read her fiction – and what other people wrote about her! And then I am going to attack her entire philosophy based on that! Why do I need to have done any other reading in order to discredit her philosophy? Regurgitating the assertions of others rather than actually reading Miss Rand’s arguments on the ideas I attack is *much* easier. I’d rather do other things with my time than actually read about that which I am attacking as false! So I simply pass off that work to others and simply quote them!

    Read Rand’s work in order to evaluate its truth? Are you kidding me?! First hand knowledge of that which I condemn? Who needs that?! And what do I care if you say it isn’t actually what she preached and practiced?! Like what SHE said actually matters here!!

    As I said – NO honesty about Miss Rand and her ideas here.

  30. B Leigh Smith August 31, 2012 at 9:12 am

    “What is the nature of the Randian argument? I’ve asserted it is a piece of deductive armchair reasoning.”

    No. You quoted someone else’s manufactured argument, rather than going to her and quoting her and her argument (which was the primary tactic you utilized through your whole blog post). In this case, the person you quoted claimed he had to make up this “deductive armchair” argument because she herself supposedly did not present it.

    Of course, this is false.

    So while you have indeed made an assertion, you have not made one pertaining to Miss Rand’s actual views. You have left her views unidentified and unrefuted.

    That is the problem with straw men – and why they are fallacies.

  31. Eric M. September 1, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    “EDIT: Random, reading your blog I see a strong emphasis on separating out your interpretation of Rand–a very idealistic one, with much to admire in ethics and outlook–from the political uses to which she has been put. To the extent that I am criticizing the latter, I apologize if anything above was offensive. I stand by my metaphysical criticisms and methodological criticisms, however.”

    Since A Random Philosopher has no links to a blog, I take it that Mr. McGinnis is actually referring to my blog post here: In my brief explanation of Rand’s ethics, I made sure to provide evidence, via links, that what I was giving was actually Rand’s view, and not some skewed misinterpretation.

    The politics consistent with the ethics I outline is still unregulated laissez-faire capitalism, because government robbery is not benevolence, and does not support good will among men. It forces people to reward indolence and incompetence, and produces a legislative war among pressure groups to get a big “piece of the pie” from the taxpayers.

  32. […] The System That Wasn’t There: Ayn Rand’s Failed Philosophy by Nicholas McGinnis, from Rotman Institute Of Philosophy Share this:EmailPrintTwitterFacebookRedditStumbleUponDiggMoreLinkedInLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Bookmarks and tagged academic writing, Ayn Rand, Geza Vermes, hagiography, Herman Melville, Ray Bradbury by Ben. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  33. Bubbareagan September 8, 2012 at 3:36 am

    “… if there were some web forum set up where professionally-trained philosophers, both pro-Rand and anti-Rand, could have it out.”

    i think the point Nicholas makes and which we saw in the B Leigh posts, professionally trained pro-rand(ian)s are an oxymoron and do not exist

    cheers bubba

  34. AVD November 22, 2012 at 2:45 am

    I’m adding a new favorite Randroid argument to my list:

    1) “You disagree with me, therefore you don’t understand Rand’s ‘philosophy’.”

    2) “You didn’t REALLY read her books and essays. Go read them again… you still disagree?” (defer back to 1)

    3) Angry name calling (always a favorite)

    4)!! “Read Rand’s disciples, they surely knew better what Rand REALLY meant.” (Last line of defense when 1,2,3 fail)

    Brilliantly dishonest and inconsistent argument. Sorry to dive into a musical metaphor but it’s like deriving Paganini’s compositional style by analyzing Brahms’ “Variation on the theme of Paganini”.

    P.S. Mr. McGinnis I beg you, pretty please, publish your essay so I can buy a hard copy of this brilliant and complete disembowelment of this pseudo-philosophy and thank you!

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